Tokyo (AsiaNews) – They were forecast and they were feared – and in fact they came to pass – the political consequences of the former president of Taiwan Lee Tenghui’s June 7th visit to the memorial sanctuary of Yasukuni (Tokyo), where he remained for over 40 minutes. A whirlwind of reporters, many form China and Taiwan awaited him at the gates to the temple: he didn’t utter a single word to them. Yet the motive for his visit was well known: Lee himself had spoken of it a week before during his flight from Taipei to Tokyo. The spirit of his brother, who died in the Philippines in 1945, who fought in the Japanese Marines and is honoured at the temple.
Given the nature of the sanctuary, viewed by many Asians as a symbol of Japan’s military past, friends and adversaries anticipated some mention or political gesture. In order to counter ambivalent interpretations, on leaving the hotel had said to the reporters: “Please do not interpret this private visit as a political or historic gesture. I was very close to my brother. When we parted in Gaoxiong (Taiwan) 62 years ago, it was the last time I saw him. My father refused to believe he was dead, so in my home we have neither his ashes nor Hihai (commemorative plaque) to venerate his memory”.
Lee was in Tokyo 22 years ago, but at the time he did not know if his brother’s spirit was honoured at Yasukuni. Now he knows. “My visit to Japan – he said – could be the last one I make in my life and so it is unbearable both for me and offensive for my family not to offer a tribute of respect for my brother”. Those who are familiar with Confucius culture know of the strong ethical value of honouring the dead.
However, despite the good intentions of the protagonist, the political dimension of his visit was considerable. Chief among those to heighten tensions surrounding the trip were Japan’s ultra nationalists and China. The former greeted him at the entrance to the shrine with banners of the rising sun (Hinomaru) and cries of “banzai” and “Taiwan forever”. In so doing not only putting the guest in an extremely awkward position, which passed them by without even a glance, but also seriously undermining the delicate dialogue which has just recently been restored with the current Japanese government.
China’s reaction has been far more worrying. China, which has long insulted Lee Tenghui as leader of the islands’ independence movement, immediately and bitterly condemned his visit to Yasukuni. Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Minister, ironically commented: “From what Lee Teng-hui has done in Japan, we can see what he is yearning for”, insinuating that Lee’s visit to the nationalist temple is an attempt to gain support from Japanese conservatives for Taiwan independence.
But strangely there was no direct attack on Tokyo. A diplomatic frenzy of goodwill betwen the two governments preceded the ex Taiwanese President’s tour of Japan. On May 30, the day he left Taipei, the Japans Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, after meetings with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in Hamburg (Germany), said: “We believe that this visit will not have any (negative) impact on our bilateral relations” and after the visit to Yasukuni, Cabinet Speaker, Yasuhisa Shiozaki re-confirmed the nature of the visit.
“We have been informed – he said – that this is a visit of a cultural and academic nature” adding in reference to the visit to the contested shrine that: “He is coming as a private citizen and there is little the government can say about that”:
Lee, after leaving the office of President (2000), has been twice to Japan for medical care, but with a limited visa which forbids him from coming to Tokyo or from making any formal declarations. This time however, he was only requested to refrain from making political speeches.
The definition of a cultural visit to Japan is not a diplomatic cover. Lee Tenghui is a perfect amalgamation of the three cultures: Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese. Born to a hakka family in an agricultural area near Taipei in1923, he had an excellent intellectual formation thanks to the Japanese government and graduated at the Imperial University of Kyoto. In the 1970’s he entered the political arena with the Kuomingtang (Chiang Kai-shek’s party) becoming president (1988) and working tirelessly for the democratization of Taiwan and for the promotion of the aboriginal element. Indeed his movement for independence must really be read in the cultural rather than political context.
He also came to Japan to receive the “Goto Shinpei” (1857-1929) award, one of the enlightened Japanese who worked a great deal for Taiwan’s independence. In his acceptance speech, after having defined Goto Shinpei, “great pioneer of Taiwan’s development”, he added: “I personally feel a spiritual bond with him, because I promoted democratization in Taiwan following according to his model”.
Lee Tenghui is Christian. No journalists were allowed to enter the sacred temple. How he behaved was later revealed by the Catholic writer Sono Ayako, a long standing friend. “After a moment of silent meditation – she told – he bowed deeply”. He then thanked the temple authorities for having preserved his brothers Hiai.